We are first introduced to Mr. Death in his laboratory, surrounded by the accouterments necessary for and befitting a mad scientist. Lightning flashes around him while test tubes bubble ominously. Anyone with a even a passing familiarity with horror movies knows that this is the sort of place referred to by men sounding like Boris Karloff as a “la-bore-atory,” the scene of dark experiments that go horribly awry while the evil genius cackles madly into the storm-ravaged night.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is and isn’t a horror movie at the same time. The documentary details a story more bizarre and troubling than anything concocted on a Hollywood sound stage but refuses to demonize or even sensationalize its would-be “evil genius,” Fred Leuchter. This man, also known as “Mr. Death,” is the author of “The Leuchter Report,” a highly controversial study concluding that buildings in Poland believed to gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps do not, in fact, bear any chemical evidence of such activity. The findings are prime ammunition for neo-Nazis and revisionist historians who claim the Holocaust to be an elaborate hoax—and indeed, Leuchter’s report was used for that purpose exactly. Certainly, anyone who would actively discredit the Holocaust can be and has been seen as an evil man. But Errol Morris’ film chooses instead to depict the strange and contradictory complexities of Leuchter’s disturbing life’s work.
The rise of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. begins with his success as an equipment salesman and repairman. His specialty is execution equipment. The son of a Massachusetts Penitentiary employee, Leuchter’s morbid interest in executions began at an early age (home video shows him as a teenager clowning around with prison guards at his father’s place of work). In speaking of his interest, Leuchter considers himself a die-hard humanitarian, so to speak. Though a proponent of the death penalty, Leuchter decries the inefficient and inhumane technology employed around the country in criminal executions. He sees himself restoring dignity to those who are given the death penalty, by making theirs a less painful, less lengthy, and less messy execution than it might typically be. (In one scene, he goes so far as to suggest that execution room designers place pictures on the ceilings, so those waiting to be executed by lethal injection, laid out on gurneys, might have something to look at.)
Leuchter’s passionate advocacy for those executed by the state, however, is tempered by his detached attitudes about his involvement in the taking of human life. Though he strongly asserts his interest in preserving the self-respect of the condemned, he also takes several opportunities—both for Morris’ camera and in earlier, still photographs Morris includes in the film—to pose in various electric chairs. While he’s strapped in, Leuchter’s silly grin becomes almost ghoulish, so happy is he to have improved on this deadly device. It may be that he finds satisfaction in helping to kill convicted felons, or it may simply be his pride in a job well done.
The progression of Mr. Death suggests the latter. Though he is in the killing business, Leuchter—with his receding hairline, oversized glasses, bad teeth, and even worse polyester suit—seems nerdishly attracted to the “pure” science of his work and blissfully unaware of its macabre moral or political ramifications. This attitude might also explain his involvement in defending Ernst Zündel, a neo-Nazi brought to trial in Canada for publishing a pamphlet claiming the Holocaust to be a hoax (the specific charge was for publishing a document he knew to be false). Leuchter’s familiarity with all things related to human execution, including the gas chamber, made him an “expert” witness for the defense, who paid for his expedition to former concentration camps in Poland. His findings, published in his infamous report, make Leuchter, as he says, “a reluctant revisionist.” After a lab failed to detect cyanide in the samples he clandestinely gathered and smuggled out of Poland, Leuchter testified on Zündel’s behalf and set off on a speaking tour. which happened to be funded by neo-Nazis.
Leuchter’s association with revisionists and anti-Semites precipitates his fall. His contracts with state prisons dwindle, his marriage falls apart, and his credibility is destroyed. While it may be hard to find sympathy for a man with such repugnant beliefs, the film does not damn Leuchter completely. Morris presents a wealth of documentation to support the presence of gas chambers in the camps and interviews a lab worker who rejects the initial findings as totally inaccurate, but he never confronts Leuchter directly with any of this information. Instead, Leuchter is shown to be rather pathetic, trapped within his relentlessly scientific frame of mind, thinking the gas chambers inconceivable because they would have been too inefficient. “Why didn’t they use bullets? Or blow them all up?” he wonders aloud about the Nazi executioners. “It just doesn’t make sense.” The sheer horror of the Holocaust cannot find a purchase in the cut-and-dried scientific efficiency that characterizes Leuchter’s thinking. A few rocks and a flawed test are all he needs to disbelieve.
Morris’ documentary, while clearly against anti-Semitism and historical revisionism, reveals Leuchter as existing in his own misconceived world. Though his findings defended Ernst Zündel and he is takes part in the neo-Nazi speaking tour, in his interviews, Leuchter appears to be unforgivably insensitive to the cultural climate surrounding the death penalty and the Holocaust. When he places an ad in the local paper to sell a used lethal injection machine, Leuchter seems genuinely surprised to learn the ad has been pulled and banned from publication. To say the least, Leuchter appears out of touch with reality.
In telling Leuchter’s story, Mr. Death addresses both the death penalty and the Holocaust, without becoming overly polemical. Its complicated but balanced treatment of Leuchter shows the international controversy and personal damage he caused (specifically, in his marriage). It would be too easy, though, to simply demonize Fred Leuchter as an evil scientist or a Nazi in disguise. Such characters, Morris’ film remind us, only exist in movies.